(AFL) Collingwood 119 Carlton 95

Collingwood 119 Carlton 95 (12/05/2007)

This wasn’t my first game of Aussie rules football. That had come the previous night at Melbourne’s 2nd stadium, the Etihad. But this game, at the famous MCG, was the one that really got me into the sport.

Prior to that, my only real exposure to the sport was Channel 4’s half-hearted coverage in the mid 1980s. Whereas for American Football, they really pulled out the stops, explaining the game and giving it the hard sell, for Aussie Rules they more or less threw you into the game blind. There was a brief run-down of the rules before being launched into completely baffling highlights where you had no idea what was going on. That first show just closed with an Australian commentator stating gruffly “well that’s footy. I hope you’re hooked” as if he resented having to talk directly those pommie bastards who like that poofter sport soccer.

Things change. The umpires in butcher’s coats, the thing that the show’s loyal but loyal band of intrigued but bewildered viewers always recall, were now dressed in t-shirts. The game is now played in the whole of Australia, rather than just one state. The Aussies have even embraced “that poofter sport” with a league of their own. Perhaps the biggest change is that the sport has grown hugely. Crowds have more than doubled since that era, moving out of small provincial venues into 40,000+ stadiums across the country. Whereas Melbourne once had 11 venues within about 2 miles of the city centre, all games in the city were now either played at the MCG or Etihad Stadium.

The suburban nature of the sport was another confusing thing to uninitiated kid from England. I’d heard of the main Australian cities, but here were teams called Collingwood, Carlton, Footscray, Fitzroy, Essendon, Hawthorn… Where on earth were these teams from? Why could I not find them on a map of Australia?

When planning trips abroad, I always consider the possibility of taking in some local sport, and did so again when arranging a trip to Australia in spring 2007. With two of those familiar, if obscure, names meeting head to head, it was a game I had to go to.

Melbourne is well blessed with sporting infrastructure. Whereas many fans around the globe have to put up with their stadium’s edge-of-town site, Melbourne has both of its large stadiums with walking distance of the compact city centre (not to mention the Rod Lever Tennis arena and the newly build 30,000 capacity AAMI Park, for football and rugby). The “Daddy” of all these venues in Melbourne, in Australia as a whole perhaps, providing those from Sydney don’t bristle too much at the suggestion, is the MCG. This stadium, holding a shade over 100,000 has actually been completely rebuilt over the last 20 years. Unlike similar complete rebuilds of grounds such as Wembley, the modernisation has done nothing to diminish the lure of the venue, nor had the number of games played there now – typically two each weekend.

First up though, I would walk a couple of hundred metres past the MCG to the Punt Road oval. This used to be one of the suburban grounds of the league until the host team, Richmond, moved its games to the MCG in the 1960s. Rather than being sold to become a supermarket, or just left to rot as would be the case in England, it’s been retained as a training ground for the club, as well as the administrative centre. The terraces may have been grassed over, but the genteel stands are all still in place. It betrays its cricket origins, but decked out splendidly in Richmond’s yellow and black, rather than the universal white at cricket grounds in England. The main stand itself is festooned with gables, pillars and little touches which just ooze charm. The larges floodlight of the MCG looming behind just throw it all into contrast. It was enough to cause me to start getting a little soft spot for the club, one on the game’s biggest, yet also probably the game’s biggest failures for a generation.

No such troubles for Carlton and Collingwood, two of the most successful sides in the game. They hold the record for the highest ever Aussie Rules crowd, when 121,696 crammed in for the 1970 Grand Final. There would be over 40,000 at the MCG less for this day’s game, but that would still be the third highest crowd I’ve ever been in.

Once inside it’s clear the stadium is in two halves. The four tier side is the older part of the rebuild, while the newer three tier stand was built for the Commonwealth Games in 2006. The top and bottom tiers of both are pretty much the same size though, giving the two halves a unity. All very impressive given the scale of the stadium.

I found myself on the second tier of the older half, directly behind one of the goals. With the crowd, as always, completely intermixed, I found myself among a knot of mainly Carlton supporters. As I always tend to do at neutral sports events, I nominally “support” the home side for the day, and on this day I’d taken it a little further and purchased a Collingwood T-shirt from the club shop. Despite the intense rivalry between the two sides, the fans were very friendly. Chatting to the Carlton fan next to me, he laughed at my reasoning, and said opting for Collingwood was rather like deciding to “barrack”, as they say over there, for Manchester United. The club’s unpopularity among other fans isn’t just limited to the bandwagon nature of their large fan base, but also relates to the fact the Collingwood district a decidedly a rougher part of Melbourne, and some fans have a nature for hostility. “Their fans are like a mix of Man Utd and Millwall” was the exact description.

As said before, this hostility wasn’t in evidence. There was certainly plenty of banter between fans, but it was good natured rather than antagonistic, as you tend to find at football.

At my first AFL game, the night before, my entire knowledge of the game’s tactics was gleaned through a scan of a Wikipedia page. Now, having seen an actual game, I was able to follow how the play developed and have a feel for what players were trying to achieve. I’d gone into the first game assuming as the game, like football, was about scoring goals, thinking that the build up play might be similar. While there are open play goals – my first AFL goal, just 30 seconds in to my first game was like that – play in AFL is more about the “mark”. The mark, which used to exist in the first FA rules, is a rule stating that anyone catching a ball that’s been kicked 15m or more, is allowed to stop and take a drop-kick from his hands. This is a good way of moving the ball up-field, but anyone taking a mark with 40m or so of the goal posts clearly gives themselves a far better chance of scoring than from kicking an oval ball while running. Just like the early FA rules, you can score at any height, but the ball has to go through the posts without being touched to count.

Once you’ve you grasped that detail, it all makes a lot more sense, and you appreciate the ability of players who are good off the ball to put themselves in position to take those crucial near-goal marks. One such player was Carlton’s Brendan Fevola, pointed out to me as a man to watch. He was deadly. Always taking up a good position and being a real handful. And critically, in the first half at least, he was very accurate, scoring four times from four marks near the goal. Accuracy is very important. A goal is worth 6 and within the two outside posts, a “behind”, just 1, so a team that’s accurate can really make an inaccurate one pay.

And that was the case in this game, at least up to half time. Possession was pretty even. Collingwood edged in scoring chances, 15 to 14, but Collingwood only scored goals on 4 of their shots, to Carlton’s 8. Whereas Fevola was on a scoring streak, Collingwood’s big man, Travis Cloke, had missed four out of four. Obviously I didn’t know it at the time, but Travis Cloke has a reputation for missing, badly. Although he does wade in with a fair share of goals over a season, his ability to miss chances that look easier to score is what he’s known for. When Collingwood won the 2010 Grand Final the commentators even joked that the reason Collingwood had scored so many goals was that “the chances haven’t fallen to Travis.” He is an honest player though, and over the last few years I’ve come to respect him a lot, because despite all the – often deserved – stick he gets, he doesn’t every shy away from a scoring chance like on off-form footballer might.

Fevola gets a lot of stick of another kind, for his off-field antics. Over the years he’s been involved in an incident in a Melbourne casino, assaulted a barman in Ireland, was stripped of club captaincy after been caught urinating on a club window, accused of giving a nude photograph of an ex-girlfriend to a magazine, put up for transfer by Carlton for being drunk and disorderly at the AFL’s end of season awards ceremony, and most recently, just hours after tweeting that he was looking forward to putting his old troubles behind him in the new year, he was arrested on charges of being a public nuisance and obstructing police. Brisbane, the club that had given him his final chance after Carlton released him, sacked him, and he went into rehab. He had a gambling addition too, for good measure.

So clearly a goalscorer, but no Gary Lineker. And his headlines in the following day’s papers wouldn’t be about his goals either. At quarter-time, when the players huddle up to discuss tactics, “Fev” decided the best thing to do would be to charge through the huddle. A mass brawl ensued involving most of the players on both sides. For his effort Fevola emerged with a cut to his head, and just like when similar things happen if football, the crowd loved it all. The remarkable thing though, is so did the press. Whereas the press here would be labelling it a disgrace, in the Melbourne papers the attitude was “…the fans love a bit of biffo…”

The second half saw a change. Collingwood, the more experienced team, started to impose themselves more on the young Carlton side. And crucially, the started to kick accurately in front of the goals too – even Travis got in on the act with 3. A blistering 3rd quarter saw Collingwood kick 7 goals to lead by a point, at which point the Carlton guy next to me all but conceded. I found that unfathomable with such a slender lead, but his reasoning was that the young Carlton team wouldn’t be able to cope now. And he was spot on. A further 5 goals were put through the posts by the home side, to the delight of the home fans in the 77,321 crowd. When the icing on a 24 point win is put on the cake by a defender scoring his first goal in seven years, the Carlton fans must have known it really wasn’t to be their day.

The crowd, good natured as ever, filed away into the low winter sun, towards Melbourne’s many welcoming bars just a 15 minute walk away. Maybe some even got on a tram towards the Docklands Stadium on the other side of the city centre to take in the second game of the day. I was sated though, and I’d surprisingly enjoyed the game and the experience so much that I wanted it to linger. I could afford to wait. I would be seeing my third AFL game in as many days tomorrow, after all.

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